Saturday Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine

Saturday, August 26, 2006
Posted by Alistair

Little Miss Sunshine—a film that has been in American theaters for exactly a month but is only now starting to get the attention it deserves—is at once incredibly subtle and excessively larger than life. It is crafted around the very simple story of a dysfunctional family embarking on a road trip so that their youngest member, Olive (Abigail Breslin), can compete in a children's beauty pageant. The plot, as with all good journey stories, is not all that important. What really drives this film to its comedic and dramatic peaks—both of which are reached often and with indefatigable charm—is the characters that inhabit it.

We are presented with characters that are both insanely over the top and heartbreakingly human. Kudos must be given to writer Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, all three of whom love and understand the unique humanity present in each of their characters.

There is the father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a man incapable of success who has developed a laughable self-empowerment system based on the bifurcation of the world between winners and losers. Sheryl (Toni Collette), the family matriarch who tries to be a pillar of family togetherness while nearly crumbling herself under the weight of financial problems and a secret smoking habit. Frank (Steve Carrell), Sheryl's scholarly brother, a once famous scholar, who has, at the film's open, fallen from grace and undergone a suicide attempt. Grandpa (Allen Arkin), a man who has led a long and varied life only to develop a heroin addiction and heavy regrets in his twilight years. Dwight (Paul Dano), Olive's brother who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is accepted into the air force. And of course Olive, a girl with little personality other than the desire to be a beauty pageant winner. She is, without a doubt, the film's weakest character.

All of these characters... initially come off as obnoxious but funny caricatures of themselves. As the film progresses, however, and the family members begin to open up to each other, the thin mercurial humanity present in each begins to show itself. The father is quite hard on his daughter and the rest of the family—going so far at times to insinuate their placement on the negative side of his black and white, losers vs. winners, binary worldview. He is redeemed however when he interacts with those who fit his strict definition of "winners". These scenes, including the film's howlingly funny and painfully heartwarming climax (where Olive performs her "talent"), are among its best. When the father battles it out with the world's winners he triumphs by retaining his own personal idiosyncrasies and moral sensibilities, characteristics that he may himself loath but that the audience is sure to adore.

Indeed, in the end, all of the characters are redeemed on similar grounds. All of the characters struggle with the constant pain of being different, and finally realize that's what draws them together. Although that ending sounds typically Hollywood and absurdly clichéd it is anything but. The film deserves the utmost respect for never compromising its integrity and giving the family the kind of victory that winners readily achieve. On the contrary, their victory is incredibly small and only important to them, but it is important to them.

While the film suffers from not enough explanation of, or investment in, its female characters, as well as some confusion about the characters it does touch upon, it carries itself off with just the right amount of humor and exploration of the human spirit. Its ending is both believable and uplifting, something almost unheard of in modern entertainment.

This movie will make you laugh both at the absurdity of its bits and at the very fact that something so painful could be so funny. And while it ultimately boils down to little more than a treatise on winners vs. losers and who really belongs to which group (a point subtlety brought out in the horrific images of real child beauty queens during the film's climax), it is a film of hilarious, dramatic, and human depths, the likes of which haven't been portrayed on the screen in such brilliant light since Sideways.